Isa & Jesus: Discussing Jesus with a Muslim
A good Turkish coffee is a drink that proves challenging to find in the States. With a viscosity more like 5w-30 motor oil and a taste resembling 15 drip coffees melted together- it carries an intensity almost inappropriate to take in at your local hipster coffee shop. If a frothy cappuccino is for Rome, and a milky latte for our American coffee shops, then this Turkish coffee is perfect for the middle eastern summer heat I am currently sitting in. Halfway through my third cup of the day, I look around the bustling veranda and take in the scenery. In this part of the world, these outdoor patios where people drink coffee and tea while smoking hookah are centers of life, especially for men. Every man in this Middle Eastern country has a local “ahwa” that he will go to after work most days. He may be there all night and smoke with his friends while playing backgammon (known in Arabic as “tawla”). I grew up playing backgammon. It isn’t a very popular game back home, nor do many people my age even know the rules. I have been desperately looking to find my way into a game filled with the locals here. I was ushered to this ahwa by Nasir, though, and our purpose for this visit is not games. An hour earlier, Nasir had introduced himself to James and me as we wandered around the city and had begun the process of trying to get us to book tours through his company. Throughout my time traveling, I have gotten very good at saying “no” to salesmen. So once Nasir realized that we are not interested in being sold any tourist-centric experience, his tone changed to a more normal conversation inquiring who we are and what we are doing.
“Where is your favorite place to get coffee or tea?” I asked. It’s best to develop the habit of asking people where their favorite places are, as opposed to asking for recommendations. This is your best way to avoid being brought to a tourist trap where guides get a commission for bringing unsuspecting tourists. Nasir smiled and gestured for us to follow him. We crossed two crowded streets filled with taxis and motorcycles and wandered through anonymous alleyways that lead us to the ahwa we are now sitting in. I know we have struck gold when I see the tawla boards and crowds of old Middle Eastern men sitting and smoking together.
“Would you let us buy you a drink?”
“Of course!” Nasir replies. His willingness to not return immediately to work is as foreign to our American sensibilities as the Arabic language I hear from the tables that surround us. The conversation that ensues begins in the ways that all conversations tend to begin. Questions about our jobs and families that lead to the three of us discussing our children. James and I are uniquely positioned to have interesting conversations in this part of the world. James runs a successful coffee shop in the states, and I teach Christians about the world’s religions. Sitting in a Muslim country drinking coffee with a stranger is our idea of excitement.
“Are you Muslim?” I ask. A stupid question, but I never want to assume much of anything.
“Yes,” Nasir smiles. “Are you?”
“No, we’re Christians. We worship Isa.” Many Western Christians mistakenly assume that the conversation might begin to become awkward at this point, but they’re wrong. Most people outside of the West are perfectly happy to discuss religion and faith.
“Good. Muslims respect Isa as well,” Nasir says as he sips his tea. “But we only worship Allah.”
The Qur’an refers to Jesus as “Isa”. When I am talking about faith with Muslims, I use the terms that they use, despite the fact that Isa is not the correct Arabic word for Jesus. If Muhammad and the assemblers of the Qur’an had used the more literal translation of Jesus’ name, it would have been something like “Yas’a”, yet “Isa” is used. Dr. Gordon Nickel says that this usage is interesting because, by flipping the consonant sounds of Jesus’ name, the Qur’an strips all sense of salvation from the meaning of Jesus’ name (Yeshua- "God is Salvation").
“I am fascinated by the differences and similarities in our beliefs; that’s part of the reason we’re here visiting,” I say. “For instance, I know Muslims believe that humans are sinful, we believe that too.” Nasir nods in agreement to this.
“How do you believe that you can go about having your sins forgiven?” I ask. Nasir launches into the normal explanation of Islam. He explains submission to Allah, the prophet Muhammad, the five pillars, and how it all fits into his own life. He arrives at the conclusion of his explanation by stating that one day he will be judged by his actions and whether he had lived a life that was pleasing to Allah.
“So do you believe you have done enough to have your sin forgiven yet?” I ask.
“No, of course not. We can never truly know until the day of judgment.” I look across the table at James, and I know that even though his eyes are open and he is quietly drinking his tea, he has been praying while I have been leading the conversation.
“Here is where we find one of the biggest differences, Nasir. I believe that my sin is forgiven now, and I can live my life knowing Allah and being known by him.” I then begin my explanation by asking him if he has ever heard the message of the Injil, the word Muslims use for the New Testament. He nods and says yes but tells us he has never read it. I go on to explain that because of Jesus, we can have our sin forgiven and our standing before Allah restored long before the day of judgment. When I arrive at my explanation of Jesus’ death and resurrection, Nasir politely interrupts.
“I don’t believe Isa was killed,” he says. “Isa snuck away from the cross, and Allah placed someone else there to take his place.”
Muslims and Christians walk around this world pretending as if they mean the same thing when they refer to Jesus and Isa. Yet Nasir has brought us to the hinge of how different the two men are. There are similarities- many Muslims believe that Jesus lived a sinless life due to the fact that Gabriel announced him as “pure” when he told Mary of his coming birth. The nature of his birth as coming from a Virgin Mary (Miriam in the Qur’an) is yet another similarity. Yet the differences pile up. In Surah 19 of the Qur’an, Isa speaks from his cradle while still an infant. He calls himself a prophet and alludes to his own death and resurrection. While the years between his birth and adulthood are mostly left to imagination in the Bible, it seems the good doctor Luke would have come across at least one person sharing this story when he set out to compile a reliable biography of Jesus’ life.
Yet a talking infant is actually not the most startling difference between Islam's Isa and Christianity's Jesus. While he might be venerated as the highest of the other biblical prophets and figures he stands beneath Muhammad in prophetic priority. Sahih Al-Bukhari, a hadith (not the Qur’an but a collection of teachings supposedly traced back to Muhammad), a story is told of people who go to the prophets in the last days looking for intercession. They go to Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus looking for someone who can intercede before Allah on their behalf. All, except Jesus, mention that their various failures make them unworthy to intercede. Jesus mentions no sin on his behalf, yet still sends the seekers to Muhammad for intercession. Along with losing his office as a priest before God, Jesus is stripped of his sonship in Islam. Many passages in the Qur’an address the Christian belief in Jesus as the “son of God”. One of the most memorized Quranic passages is surah 19:35, “It is not befitting to the majesty of Allah that he should beget a son.”
All these differences are small in comparison with the difference Nasir professed in the ahwa as I drank coffee with him. Surah 4:157 says about the Jews killing Jesus, “…and for their saying, ‘Surely we killed the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, the messenger of God’- yet they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, but it (only) seemed like (that) to them.” This passage has caused centuries of confusion and attempts by Islamic scholars to explain what exactly Muhammad meant by this. The conclusion most Muslims have arrived at is that Jesus was somehow replaced by someone else on the cross, and Allah rescued him from death. Many Muslims believe that Jesus ascended without dying and will one day return. The few mentions of his death and resurrection, like the one he allegedly uttered as an infant, are referring to a death he will experience after his return. So it was someone else who died on the cross, and there was no resurrection. It is these startling differences that cause the many others to seem trivial in comparison. If there was no atoning death and victorious resurrection, then all else that the New Testament teaches us is void. In fact, many Muslims believe that the Injil (Gospel/New Testament) that we read today is a version corrupted by early Christians to spread the Jesus divinity myth. This is the fabric on which my conversation with Nasir is woven upon. He and I are both able to celebrate the life of a man who lived in Israel two thousand years ago, yet I don’t believe we’re talking about the same man. He is talking about Isa, who lived a life teaching the same submission that Muhammad taught 500 years later. An Isa who belongs to a line of prophets who all rank lower than Muhammad. I am talking about Jesus the son of God, messiah, king, and high priest who afforded all humanity the opportunity to have their cosmic wrongdoing not only absolved but made right before God. The differences go far past which name we call him by.
“I have heard a lot of Muslims say things like that,” I say. “But something about that confuses me- here in this culture family is so important, correct?”
“And you have heard that Miriam was there at the cross when Jesus was crucified…before you say he was replaced.”
“Yes, she was there with his friends.”
“Nasir, if that was your mother…don’t you think she would be able to know if that was not you on that cross?”
Nasir paused mid sip with his tea suspended near his lips. He looked at me out of his peripheral vision and smiled.
“Well, brother, if I knew as much about Christianity as you know about Islam…I could answer that.”
All three of us laugh together. We have reached the point in the conversation where we now must cut through the prepackaged questions and answers that we had learned in preparation for conversations like this one. Luckily, we hadn’t come to the ahwa for debate; we had come for coffee, tea, and friendship.
“Nasir, when I want to learn about Islam, I read the Qur’an and talk to Muslims. If you want to know about Isa and Christianity, you should talk to Christians and read the Injil. Would you ever be open to meeting back together and reading the Injil with us?”
Most Muslims have never read the Gospels at all, and they take the claim that its contents are corrupt on faith. To get a Muslim to ever read it and encounter the true Jesus is a triumph.
“Yes, brother. Why not?” He says. He seems genuinely interested. I finish my coffee, and James and Nasir finish their tea. I look around to see if anyone had listened in on our conversation. The ahwa is still bustling with tawla noises, filling even more with hookah smoke. We walk back to his travel agency and wish blessings on him and head back to our hotel and look forward to reading the story of Jesus to someone who only knows of Isa.
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